Friday, December 31, 2010

"Bike to Brazil" Intro

Re-intro: Paul Joseph Park, from Mt. Rainier, MD, on the Northeastern border of Washington, DC. I first went to Brazil in 1999, when I was 18, with non-profit Amigos de las Americas. I stayed for eight weeks with a host family in the rural Northeast, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, near Natal. I enjoyed the culture, especially the warmth, creativity and beauty of the people, as well as aspects such as soccer, forró (a genre of music and partner dance), Portuguese, capoeira, and the beach. I had a girlfriend there, and I have stayed in touch with her and her family throughout the years (she has since married and has a daughter). I returned to Brazil in 2004 to tour the country by bus and to visit the friends I had made. I was convinced I wanted to spend more time there, to absorb more culture, especially the aspects I listed, and perhaps live there indefinitely.
After that second visit, I returned to Oberlin College, where I was pursuing a 3-2 dual-degree engineering B.S./B.A. program. I then switched tracks to pursue just a B.A., in Environmental Studies, to wrap up my studies quickly with minimal debt so I could make my way to Brazil to continue my life there. (I now want to complete a degree in energy (mechanical) engineering at a university in Brazil or the US.) Transition to Brazil would not happen so fast. After I finished my degree, I started the Mt. Rainier Bike Co-op, and I picked up a job at a Brazilian restaurant in Washington, DC to save up some money and practice Portuguese. I envisioned that my life would be partly in Brazil and partly in the U.S., but because of my environmental commitment, I did not want to make flying back and forth to become my lifestyle due to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with current airplanes. Meanwhile, a friend of mine had encouraged me to bike the 6 miles back and forth to work; I tried it, and I was inspired by that experience. At some point in the spring of 2006, I had the brilliant inspiration that instead of flying, I could--and here is where it started-- "Bike to Brazil!" In addition to being green, such a trip would bring together many of my skills: Spanish, Portuguese, my experience in Latin America with Amigos de las Americas, cycling, and bicycle repair. Also, I would get to see parts of the world that lie between my home and my destination, places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, the origins of so many of the Spanish-speaking immigrants with whom I played soccer, attended D.C. United soccer games, and practiced Spanish.
In addition, I could make my trip into a political-environmental statement, raising awareness and support around a cause I care about--finding solutions to climate change. I thought about what I thought most needed to be done to address the climate issue, and I came up with the answer of national, federal legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. I did some research as to whether any proposals existed, and sure enough, a cap-and-trade bill called the Climate Stewardship Act had been proposed in Congress, and there was a campaign led by Environmental Defense to rally support. They had organized an online petition that had accumuted 620,000 signatures at the time I found it. I decided to support this campaign during my bike trip. I raised money for Environmental Defense, I collected signatures, and I directed people to the online petition. The petition I later found out had stagnated at 620,000, and it jumped up to about 650,000 within a few months of when I started promoting it.
My orientation to climate change and its solutions has evolved since the last trip; I now focus primarily on the development of breakthrough energy generation technologies. My first trip, however, thrust me into a world that has inherent value and interest: bicycle travel/touring. It is so exciting, fun, and empowering; the fact that it is emissions-free is secondary.
On my first trip, which spanned September 2006 to April 2007, I biked from Washington, DC to Chiapas (Southern Mexico, 4,500 miles) before suspending it due to the following series of events:
-losing my debit card, my only access to cash, in the Northern city of Cd. Victoria, and then waiting until I had an address I would send the new card to, where I could pick it up or wait for it
-later being robbed of $100 cash (1000 pesos), almost all of what I had left, by a host in the small town of Lerdo de Tejada, in the state of Veracruz
-returning to my friends' hotel in the city of Veracruz where I had a secure and supportive place to wait for the replacement card in the mail, instead of having the card sent to a place down the road and attempting to bike there with no cash
-it took six weeks for the replacement card to arrive by Mexican mail (lesson: use Fedex in Mexico if you need speed), and meanwhile the hot summer approached
Other factors that led to cutting it short:
-tires were wearing thin and I could not find the replacement tire I wanted; my handlebar stem was not long enough and I could not find the one I needed; the bicycle did not fit my riding style (this was a Koga Miyata World Traveller)
-I desired to visit Mexican friends I made on the road at their homes in Puebla and Mexico City
-I desired to attend my sister's wedding
After my card finally arrived in the mail, I biked to Chiapas, knowing that would be my stopping point, and from where I would bus to Puebla, visit a friend I had met in Veracruz, bus to Mexico City, visit some friends I also met in Veracruz, and then fly back home with my bike to attend my sister's wedding, work on the bike or get a different one, and regroup.
Since that trip, I have biked to New York CIty from Washington, DC and back (500 miles), and I have biked the 320 miles to Pittsburgh from DC along the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage trails. From January 2008 to September 2010 I worked at REI in College Park, MD, where I was able to teach others about how to do bicycle travel and commuting, and sell them the needed equipment. And I have retooled my own equipment for another long journey; the most significant equipment change has been the customization of a different bicycle, built around the Surly Big Dummy frameset.
In September of 2010, I felt completely prepared to break free and take another long journey. So I quit my job at REI, and headed South, taking the bike on Amtrak and Greyhound to Texas, where I intended to take care of remaining business and feel things out before crossing into Mexico. I took some time in Austin and Houston to renew my passport, obtain my Brazilian visa, and make some final changes to the bike. In early November, 2010 I biked 600 miles from Austin to Brownsville, TX, across the border from Matamoros, Mexico. I spent some days there with locals who straddled the border, with roots in Mexico and the US, and who attended the University of Texas at Brownsville. I decided to take a bus from Matamoros to the city of Veracruz. A contact in Brownsville shuttled me across the border to the bus station, and I was off. In Veracruz, I of course stayed with my friends at their hotel, where I had stayed at for two months when I was waiting for my replacement debit card to come in the mail.
After four days there, I continued by bus to Cancun, where I attended a few of the events related to the UN Climate Conference, and had many a good discussion with conference attendees who were staying at my hostel, expressing my ideas related to breakthrough technology. After the conference, some tours of the nearby ruins, and some partying, I finally loaded up the bike and rode South three hours, 41 miles (70 km) to Playa del Carmen. In Playa, I stayed with a friend who I had met in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz on the first trip, who now works at a hotel near Playa. As I write this, I have am enjoying all that Playa has to offer including beaches, soccer, cycling, and nightlife. I will celebrate the start of the new year here.
Then the journey on bicycle will continue South to Belize, and is projected to go to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama (Colón); boat to Cartagena, Colombia; bike to and through Venezuela and to Manaus, Brazil; then boat down the Amazon to Belém; then bike to Natal, Brazil. There, I will stay at least awhile, and then maybe bike on South to Recife, Salvador, Rio, São Paulo, Florionopolis, and maybe into Argentina and down to Tierra del Fuego! Lots of potential here. I am commited to at least make it to Brazil, much of that by bike, some by boat, and perhaps some by bus.
As far as my environmental perspective, I am following mostly the train of thought promoted by the think tank The Breakthrough Institute, and leaders such as Bill Gates and Google, Inc. who are investing in breakthrough energy technologies. I am working on an article that I will post soon that explains my perspective.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas went well. I am putting photos up at my Facebook page; if you like, add me (Paul Joseph Park) and please add a message to your friend request indicating that you are reading my blog. I will definitely leave Playa by January 2, if not before. Playa is expected to have some fabulous New Years Eve parties, with international DJ's coming into town for an annual festival. So I may stick around for that.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Everything is going well. Preparing for Christmas. Played soccer today on the beach and injured my toe a bit--reinjured it really, and then iced it for a half-hour. I hope it recovers quickly. Hanging out at the moment in the outdoor plaza with the Starbucks and the fountain. Getting excited to take off South. A local told me about some cool natural spots near where he is from, Chetumal, on the border with Belize. Once I get there, I will take photos and post them. I will leave after Christmas or after New Years. Still planning on writing for and looking into tutoring Math and English online.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Playa del Carmen. More and more folks are arriving for the Christmas and New Year holiday. The weather is quite nice. I am enjoying riding my bike around the town. The bike continues to get high compliments. Also, I have been using it to give rides to friends and acquaintances here. Playa, as Playa del Carmen is known for short, is definitely a bike town. Bikes abound everywhere. Pedicabs--the kind with two wheels in front and one drive wheel in the back, the same bikes as cargo bikes for carrying and selling 5-gallon containers of water, fruit, food stands; regular bikes are prevalent throughout the town. Thus, everyone is very bike-aware. And when they see my bike, they immediately recognize its novelty, beauty and utility. The Surly Big Dummy would certainly be an excellent design to proliferate here, a place where it is not uncommon to see a family of four or sometimes five transported on one scooter, and normal bicycles frequently have two people on them.
I have been playing lots of beach soccer recently, everyday at 4:30pm. Mexican locals, French, Canandian, German, Argentinian young adults gather for pick-up soccer in the sand. It is more challenging than on grass or pavement as one's feet sink into the sand and the ball rolls unpredictably. Nevertheless, it is a great workout and good training, making easier subsequent play on firmer, more predictable surfaces.
I am looking forward to celebrating Christmas with my housemates here. We began planning our meal to include mole, rice and chicken, and perhaps turkey soup. I am hoping for tamales and toritos.
Cheers and Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

One of the original motivations for taking a long bike trip was to travel far without the emissions, with a focus on climate-changing carbon emissions. However, while it stands as a superb technology with the distinction as the most energy-efficient form of transportation known to man, the bicycle does not solve our energy challenges. And while there may not be a silver bullet to solving the energy-economy-climate challenge, some emerging technologies have the potential to address the core of the challenge: to create a base-load energy supply that is cheaper than fossil fuels and carbon-free. In this post, I will highlight two of those technologies: TerraPower and Enhanced Geothermal Systems.
TerraPower is a next-generation nuclear technology that overcomes many of the limitations of existing nuclear technology. Bill Gates, who is a major financial and intellectual supporter of this project, introduces this technology in a recent TED talk, Innovating to Zero, which does a superb job of clearly and concisely defining our challenge and this potential solution. It takes a waste product, depleted uranium, and turns it into the fuel source. From TerraPower's website, "TerraPower’s traveling wave reactor (TWR) will offer a path to zero-emission, proliferation-resistant energy that produces significantly smaller amounts of nuclear waste than conventional nuclear reactors. After an initial start-up with with a small amount of low-enriched material, this innovative reactor design can run for decades on depleted uranium – currently a waste byproduct of the enrichment process. An established fleet of TWRs could operate without enrichment or reprocessing for millennia. TerraPower has explored the advanced physics of this concept in detail with 21st-century computational tools and is moving forward with the overall plant design."

The other potential solution I will highlight, Enhanced Geothermal Systems, is promoted and financially supported by Google as part of its RE < C, or Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal project. This technology will use heat of the Earth's core to generate electricity not just in those locations of the Earth where the magma naturally comes close to the Earth's surface, but virtually anywhere by drilling deep enough to access it. If this technology can be made affordable and the process reliable, then it, too, could provide a base-load supply of electrical and thermal energy virtually anywhere in world. More on Google's Enhanced Geothermal Systems project here.
Both of these technologies are examples of the type of projects promoted by the think tank The Breakthrough Institute, which promotes significant and increased public-private investment in breakthrough energy technologies. They support an integrated, directed public-private program to speed the development of technologies such as these.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Playa del Carmen.  Today I gave three little brothers a ride on the back of my bike (see the photo show below and to the right); met some clowns preparing for a circus; headed downtown and spent the afternoon and evening playing beach soccer.  Now at the BK catching up with work--some of the best free wi-fi in town is here.  Lots of people are out, the weather is warm and pleasant, the mariachis are playing their music.  Christmas time is approaching and more and more vacationers are arriving.  The soccer games shall get larger and more frequent.
Goodness gracious, my bike gets so many admiring looks and comments.  It is nearly all black, and hence very appealing to the eye, and in addition, it is a novelty as it is longer than normal with the rear capacity for passengers.  Several folks have asked me today how they can get one and how much it would cost.  I have been encouraging folks to go to Xtracycle to purchase the extension so they can make their current bike into a long-tail cargo bike.  I usually am quite hesitant to say the full-on price of the bike; instead I give a ridiculously low-ball figure, like somewhere between $200 and $800, the poorer the person looks, the lower the figure so as not to inspire jealousy, or I tell them how much I got the frame for, and say that many of the other parts I already had. If someone in Mexico really wanted to get the same bike I have, they should contact Xtracycle or go to the best bike shop they know of and see if they have an account with QBP where their bike shop can order the frame and specify all of the parts they want.  The complete bike that Surly builds is quite different than the one I have; it is easier to get the complete bike, but if you know what you want, get the frame and specify to your bike shop all the parts you want.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Playa del Carmen; Bike Shop Experience; Route Reflections

I am in Playa del Carmen now, a very pleasant place, cozy with a very nice beach and some pedestrian exclusive streets. Yesterday, I went out to find some work. I went to a bike shop and they asked me if I knew how to build a wheel. I said yes. They gave me the materials and I went to work. I knew the basic idea and technique, but I had never built a wheel from start to finish. In about an hour to an hour and half, I had built my first wheel, with a bit of guidance looking on as a co-worker built a similar wheel. They inspected my product and offered me a job starting the next morning! The terms were: 8am to 8pm M-Sat, and 8am-1pm Sunday, payday. 1200 pesos/week plus one meal daily. That is 77 hours/week for $100, or $1.30/hour! Wow. Even though it was a paltry sum, I decided to try it for the experience. I came in this morning, and the boss said that after speaking with the owner, he could not hire another worker. Oh, well. So today I turn to the web to try to make some money--via this blog, and also through writing articles for Any other ideas?
At this point I plan to stay in Playa through Christmas to celebrate with some friends, and then continue the journey. Last night I met with old friend David Kroodsma and his co-Stanford alum friend Kate Larsen, who both work in the climate field--David as a blogger for the Huffington Post and Kate as a climate negotiator for the US Department of State. Both were in Cancun at the climate summit and hung around afterwards for some touring and relaxing. David did "Ride for Climate" 5 years ago, which was a self-supported bike tour from California to Tierra del Fuego, educating about impending local impacts of climate change. At the end of our visit last night, David suggested I take the island hopping route of Cuba, Haiti, DR, Jamaica, etc. instead of Central America, which he said is probably the least desirable place in Latin America to bike through. I am considering it; food for thought. I have a couple weeks to think about that. I have considered the island route before and this would probably be the best place to switch tracks. Or perhaps in Belize. I am not decided yet if I still want to do Central America, the "Island-hopping route", or skip straight to Colombia, which by all accounts of recent visitors--cyclers and backpackers alike--is one of the most wonderful and exciting places on my route. Any comments or suggestions from folks who have recently traveled to Central America, Cuba, Haiti, DR, Jamaica, Colombia? What have you seen and experienced? What do you like? I have been looking forward to Central America, but I am open to route variations. I am not married to using the bike exclusively--all modes of travel are on the table. What about Venezuela? I hear it is a bit tumultuous, but I always take fear-mongering with a grain of salt; some first hand reports would be instructive.

Monday, December 06, 2010

I am in Cancun now, and have been checking out the ruins, the beaches and the climate conference. I have been enjoying discussing the ideas of the Breakthrough Institute with folks who are part of the climate conference and staying my hostel, Hostel Quetzal.

Planning to head South in a few days to Playa del Carmen and stay there with a friend perhaps until Christmas. This will be the first leg I do by bicycle since I rode to Brownsville from Harlingen. Looking forward to Playa, and a Christmas in Mexico. The Posadas start on the 16th of December, and there is one every night until Christmas--includes call and response songs, pinyatas for the kids, processing through the streets to various houses and churches looking for a place for Mary to have the baby...should be fun! Then tamales and toritos for Christmas!